By: Hana Ashraf ElHessy
Yemen has many seaports that are characterized by a special nature due to their strategic locations suitable for international trade and shipping lines, which has made the conflict in Yemen more complex, as the parties of the conflict are struggling to control the coasts, seaports, and sea outlets controlled by the strategic location of the country overlooking the Arabian sea and red sea.
The recent actions taken by the Houthi group (Ansar Allah), targeting Israeli ships in the Red Sea in response to the Israeli war on Gaza, once again shed light on the importance of maritime investments in Yemen, as there is noticeable border tension towards the Yemeni coasts, where the Houthis have attacked the Yemeni guards, throughout November the Houthis carried out numerous operations in the Red Sea, whether with the interception of an Israeli or American ship tanker or launching missiles at an American destroyer in the Gulf of Aden.
Although previous indicators showed the Houthi intimidation policies in the Red Sea before the outbreak of the Israeli War on Gaza, the Houthis’ participation in this war leads to an increase in the potential risks that would have negative global trade and economic impacts, not only limited to Israel but also on maritime navigation in general.
The paper aims to discuss, the strategic importance of seaports and how they constitute an important equation in the Yemeni crisis.
The first axis: The strategic importance of seaports:
The Republic of Yemen enjoys an important and distinctive strategic location, due to its location on the southwestern side of the Arabian Peninsula and overlooking the Arabian Sea, the Gulf of Aden, and the Red Sea. It is also located between the State of Oman and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, and the area of the country is 527,970 square kilometers. Yemen is characterized by its terrain and flat coastal plains, Yemen is considered a crossroads of ancient and modern trade and communications routes, due to its location at the southern entrance to the Red Sea Island, Yemen includes a large number of islands, including the Qumran Islands, which are located near Hodeidah in the Red Sea, and Socotra Island. They are the most important islands in Yemen, it is divided into five main regions: the Tihama coastal plain, the Yemen highlands, the central mountains, the eastern highlands, the eastern desert regions, and the northeastern desert regions.
Seaports in Yemen enjoy great strategic importance, there are about 6 international seaports within Yemen (the Port of Aden, the Port of Hodeidah, the Port of Mukalla, the Port of Al-Mukha, the Port of Saleef, and the Port of Nishtun), they are ports equipped to receive ships and goods and provide loading and unloading services, these ports have played a role since ancient times, and an important vital role not only in the Yemeni economy but in the life of the entire Arabian Peninsula.
The second axis: Map of control over sea ports in Yemen
Ports are spread along the southern and western coasts of Yemen, and some of them are considered among the oldest ports in the Arabian Peninsula, they also formed an important part of the history of Yemen and the region, in addition to their geographical, economic and strategic importance, we can divide the ports according to the parties to the conflict and what ports were occupied, these ports were under the control of any party to the conflict
The parties to the conflict and their control over seaports:
Ports under Houthi control:
The port of Hodeidah is considered one of the most important Yemeni ports under the control of the Houthis, and it has been under their control since 2014 until now, according to international reports, Iran also supplies the Houthis with heavy weapons and marine machinery, the important of the port of Hodeida, which the coalition forces have tried to control a lot, lies in that it is located in the middle of the western coast of Yemen on the Red Sea, which is one of the historical trade centers on the Yemeni coast, due to its proximity to international shipping lines, it was established in Hodeida Governorate in 1961 in cooperation with the Soviet Union.
The Houthis have controlled it since 2014 until now, Al-Salif Port is one of the most important strategic ports in Yemen, as it is located in the northwest of the city of Hodeidah and is 60 km away from it, in the past, salt was exported from it.
The port has a dock equipped for the docking of giant ships, in addition to facilities for silos and mills for wheat and grains, the city in which it is located, “Al-Salif” is also famous for its gypsum mines and high-purity rock salt, which is considered one of the finest types of salt in the world, and its reserves are estimated at 150 million tons.
Ports under the control of the Southern Transitional Council:
Over the past years, the forces of the legitimate Yemeni government, led by Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi, controlled the strategic port, until the forces of the Southern Transitional Council took control of it after engaging in armed clashes in August 2019 with government forces, The port of Aden is considered one of the most important natural ports in the world and has a major role, the role of the port increased after the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869, due to the services that the port provided to ships heading to and from the canal, primarily about supplying ships with fuel.
Ports under the control of the Yemeni government:
This port is considered one of the oldest and most important Yemeni seaports due to its proximity to the international corridor, a distance of one hundred kilometers, and its location in the southern and central regions of Yemen, it was one of the most important ports for exporting Yemeni coffee, the port fell under the control of the Houthi forces until it was recaptured by the Yemeni government forces, supported by the Arab coalition forces to support legitimacy in Yemen, led by the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, in 2017
The port of Mukalla fell under the control of the Houthis for a period until it was restored by the Yemeni government with the support of the coalition forces, despite the difficulties of working in it due to the continuation of the war and its exposure to missile attacks, the port provides adamant Governorate and its neighboring governorates with all its necessary needs of various foodstuffs, oil derivatives, equipment, and machinery.
The port fell under the control of the Yemeni government, but in addition to the local administration, forces affiliated with the Arab Coalition to Support Legitimacy have been managing the port for several years, Nishtun Port provides a haven for small ships and was completed in 1984 AD, the same year it became under the management of the former Yemeni Ports Authority after it was managed by the Fisheries Wealth Foundation, Nishtun Port is used to receive fishing vessels and some small vessels that unload food and fuel.
The third axis: Seaports are an important equation in the Yemeni crisis
Incidents of piracy by the Iranian-backed Houthi group of commercial ships in seaports over the past years have sparked widespread dissatisfaction, both at the regional and international levels, because they affected global navigation and even the risks they could bring to Yemen and its people, the Yemeni government has always emphasized its absolute rejection of the acts of maritime piracy carried out by the Houthi group with full support of the Iranian regime in Yemeni territorial waters.
Over the past years, the Houthi groups have planted mines in Yemeni territorial waters, off the coast of the port of Midi and the Red Sea and near the international shipping line in the Red Sea, through their members who have been trained, or through Iranian experts who were brought in for this purpose, and according to military sources, the militia intensified the planting of sea mines, worked to camouflage some of them and plant others randomly, in vast areas of the sea, using boats and naval mines for this purpose, in addition to turning Yemeni territorial waters into a platform to target several Saudi ports, including the port of Jazan in 2018. Yanbu, which was thwarted by the coalition forces more than once, and thus the Iranian-backed Houthi was able to use Yemeni waters as a pressure card on Saudi Arabia to put pressure on other parties to the conflict.
Also, the oil attacks carried out by the Houthi militias during the past years greatly affected Yemeni waters, the group targeted the Dabbah oil port in Hadramaut, and the Qena oil port in Shabwa, Thus, the Houthi actions became a clear blackmail to the international community and an explicit and strong pressure card.
The Israeli and American response to the Houthi operations and the future of the negotiations (Saudi-Houthi):
As for the current context of what has been going on in Gaza since the October 7th operation, the Houthi group launched several missiles and drones toward Israel, in a move that may not only affect the course of the ongoing war between Israel and Hamas, but also cast a shadow over Yemen, and with the Houthi pledge Launching more attacks, in addition to hijacking Israeli ships.
Israel responded by sending missile boats into the Red Sea, joining US warships already deployed in the region, the US Department of Defense also announced discussions to establish an international maritime task force under the pretext of deterring Houthi attacks on commercial ships in the Red Sea.
Before this dangerous escalation in Gaza, Saudi Arabia was seeking to settle the Yemeni crisis by creating channels of communication with the Houthis, through Oman, based on the Saudi leadership’s awareness that prolonging the war in Yemen has exhausted many of its capabilities, and will affect its achievement of Vision 2030, which requires a stable security and economic environment, and this is evidenced by the return of “Saudi-Iranian” relations, with Chinese mediation, last March, which this was followed by exchange of visits by delegations from “the Saudis and the Houthis,” whether in Sanaa or Riyadh, to discuss the settlement path in Yemen.
But the negotiations between the Houthis and Saudi Arabia before the Gaza war reached a sensitive stage, despite the first and official visit made by Al-Houthi to Riyadh, in the middle of last September, it was reported that the Houthis launched an attack at the end of the same month on the force that was deployed within the coalition forces to support legitimacy in Yemen, on the southern border of Saudi Arabia, and this attack resulted in the death of… approximately three Bahraini soldiers.
But it seems that the war in Gaza has shuffled the cards again, Saudi Arabia may be affected if the conflict expands in the region, and this matter may lead to the division of the region into two camps, Iranian and hostile to it, and this is a possibility, and by the Gulf states’ security connection with the West, all attempts to reach an agreement with Iran or with the Houthis may collapse, and although the war has frozen the “Saudi-Houthi” talks until now, but She didn’t finish it.
With few days left, on Thursday evening the Houthis attacked a ship in the Red Sea with a drone that was confirmed to be heading to Israel, in response to the war in the Gaza Strip, the Houthis have repeatedly confirmed that they are targeting ships linked to Israeli entities, however, they recently explain the scope of their operations by announcing on last Saturday that they would prevent the passage of all ships heading to Israeli ports unless food and medicine were brought into the Gaza strip, they also succeeded in preventing the passage of several ships heading to Israeli entity stressing that all ships heading to Israeli ports will continue to be prevented from navigation in the Arab and red sea.
Seaports in Yemen have always represented a major pressure card, especially for the Iranian-backed Houthi group, on the rest of the parties in the region, but the Houthi attacks targeting Israel after the Israeli war on Gaza may put the Red Sea region in the heart of the raging conflict, which is an international corridor, major shipping carriers depend on it, and many countries are competing with it due to its great strategic importance, and the confrontation in the Red Sea and the areas surrounding it is likely to escalate during the coming period, therefore, there is an urgent need to monitor the Houthi actions in the Red Sea region, as they are a developing threat in the region, as these actions will not only affect global shipping traffic but may also negatively affect the paths to settling the Yemeni crisis itself.